Notes on James Baldwin: The Last Interview: and Other Conversations (The Last Interview Series)
The first time I had the pleasure of reading Baldwin, was when a good friend of mine introduced me to ‘Giovanni’s Room’. After reading that book, I immediately became a fan of Baldwin and obsessed with his legacy as a writer and activist.
The Last Interview and Other Conversations is a book of transcripts, interviews from Baldwin throughout his career. This includes an interview by Studs Terkel (Almanac WFMT Chicago, 1961), an interview by Julius Lester (The New York Times, 1984), an interview by Richard Goldstein (The Village Voice, 1984) and his final interview by Quincy Troupe (1987). In the first featured interview with Terkel, Baldwin talks about the plight of being a Black artist in America, and the meaning/inspiration behind his novel, Nobody Knows My Name.
“All you are ever told in this country about being black is that it is a terrible, terrible thing to be. Now, in order to survive this, you have to really dig down into yourself and re-create yourself, really, according to no image which yet exists in America. You have to impose, in fact—this may sound very strange—you have to decide who you are, and force the world to deal with you, not with its idea of you.”
When I read this quoted line from Baldwin, my immediate response to this, was that the title for his novel was a message to Black American life. That we must take control over the narrative of what it means to be black in America. Maybe not as a collective, but at least individually. We must free ourselves by knowing who we are. Terkel uses an example after this, of Ruby Bridges.
"the little girl who walked into the Little Rock School House and was spat on was much freer than the white child who sat there with a misconceived notion."
Another part of this book that stuck out to me was during his interview with Julius Lester, they spoke about the writing of Black life through the eyes of white authors while discussing The Confessions of Nat Turner.
“I think Bill wrote the book from that point of view because he couldn’t find another one, he had to try to put himself in the skin of Nat Turner. Now that may have been a great error, but I can’t condemn him for it. It’s beyond my province, really. The book meant something to me because it was a white Southern writer’s attempt to deal with something that was tormenting him and frightening him. I respect him very much for that. Now, as to his execution, what is one to say about it?”
But does this give them a free pass to be the voice of Black people? After this comment from Baldwin, Lester followed up with:
“I’m still waiting for the white writer to write a novel about a lynching from the point of view of the lyncher.”
I couldn’t agree more! When will white authors write these stories from the perspective of the other side? I feel as though this raises an issue among white writers who consider themselves allies. They want to be seen as the good guys, so they avoid telling these stories from the lens of the oppressors. Baldwin said that America’s effort to avoid the presence of black people constricts American literature. That it creates a trap white writers find themselves in. I believe that they find any way to center themselves and this causes a false narrative of American life to be portrayed for the rest of the world to see.
In his next interview with Goldstein, they discuss sexuality in which Baldwin opens up about his own sexuality, and how it contributes to his works. Of course, Giovanni's Room is discussed and he highlights how sexuality is not the purpose of this story.
“Giovanni’s Room is not really about homosexuality. It’s the vehicle through which the book moves. Go Tell It on the Mountain, for example, is not about a church, and Giovanni is not really about homosexuality. It’s about what happens to you if you’re afraid to love anybody. Which is much more interesting than the question of homosexuality.”
The vehicle in which the book moves, is the exact feeling I got while reading the book. David's story was less about his struggle with being gay and more about his struggle with selfishness and his inability to truly love or care about anyone other than himself. I noticed that while Baldwin was never really closeted, he wasn’t exactly shouting from the rooftops about his attraction to men either. I always found this odd, growing up in a society where it’s either all or nothing. You’re either out or you’re ashamed. I must say that I admire Baldwin’s approach to sexuality. He admits that he had unresolved issues with coming to terms with who he was, but never thought of himself as 'othered' as many do in the homosexual community:
“Look, men have been sleeping with men for thousands of years—and raising tribes. This is a Western sickness, it really is. It’s an artificial division. Men will be sleeping with each other when the trumpet sounds. It’s only this infantile culture which has made such a big deal of it… There’s nothing in me that is not in everybody else, and nothing in everybody else that is not in me. We’re trapped in language, of course. But “homosexual” is not a noun. At least not in my book.”
Baldwin also said that his editor refused to publish Giovanni’s Room, saying that Baldwin would alienate his audience. He took his manuscript to England and got it published there instead. As an author myself, I am all too familiar with the pressure to publish, or not publish work based on what will anger the masses. We are only good if we are writing about our trauma in a way that serves them, or how they see fit.
“You see, it’s very important for the nigger to suffer. Therefore, they, white people, can feel guilty. Therefore, they can do something about it in their own good time. Let me again explain further. Once, after I published Go Tell It on the Mountain and Giovanni’s Room, my publisher, Knopf, told me I was a “Negro writer” and that I “reached a certain audience.” So, they told me, “you cannot afford to alienate that audience. This new book will ruin your career because you’re not writing about the same things and in the same manner as you were before and we won’t publish this book as a favor to you.”
During this interview, Goldstein also mentioned that sometimes white gay people look to Black people to heal them. As quoted, “healing their alienation.” They look to us for validation in what he presumes is a shared experience of oppression. This affirms the stereotype that white folks mammify us. They look at everything we've overcome, our perseverance, and see it as a superpower. A power that can comfort and heal them in the time of need.
The last interview, with Quincy Troupe, was right before Baldwin's death in 1987.
“One of the last things he said to me was that he hoped that I and the other writers would continue to be witnesses of our time; that we must speak out against institutionalized and individual tyranny wherever we found it. Because if left unchecked, it threatened to engulf and subjugate us all—the fire this time. And, of course, he is right. He is right—about racism, violence, and cynical indifference that characterize modern society, and especially the contemporary values that are dominant here in America today.”
I can’t imagine what an honor it was to be able to sit with Mr. Baldwin during his last days. When I read this passage, I felt Baldwin in my heart. This was an amazing read. I felt like I got to know Mr. Baldwin in a better sense, especially right before his passing. These interviews should be preserved forever, as many writers such as myself can benefit from his words and life experiences.